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Revive idea to help fund education

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By Richard S. Davis
Most states have yet to restore per-pupil public school spending to pre-recession levels. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently reported some startling numbers. Compared with 2008, inflation-adjusted spending per student for the 2014 fiscal year is down 23 percent in Oklahoma, down 20 percent in Alabama and 17 percent in Arizona. Energy-rich North Dakota posts a 28 percent increase.
Washington comes in less than 1 percent, just $35 per pupil, below the 2008 mark, comparing relatively favorably. Tweak the inflation measure and we could climb into positive territory. Thirty-two states do worse. And our Legislature made substantial progress in the last session.
The CBPP report arrives just months before the state Supreme Court grades the Legislature's progress toward meeting the court's mandated increase in basic education spending, known as the McCleary decision. Last month lawmakers turned in their second annual report.
Next, education advocates will submit their evaluation of legislative efforts. They've already indicated their displeasure. Then, the court will deliver its judgment.
An attorney for the education groups that filed the original suit told the Associated Press, "I think they (lawmakers) are doing what they think they can get away with."
They did more than that. After some initial partisan wrangling over what to emphasize, the eight-member legislative committee charged with reporting to the court found a lot to like about its performance. Lawmakers increased basic education funding by $982 million in the 2013-15 operating budget, an 11.4 percent increase from the previous biennium. That includes new funding for full day kindergarten, pupil transportation, reduced class sizes for kindergarten and first grade, and increased funding for general operations.
It didn't come easily. Budget negotiations ran long and hot. It wasn't pretty, but the outcome was pretty good, if not sustainable. Lawmakers acknowledged as much, saying they relied on "various fund transfers and revenue redirection." More simply, they resorted to the usual gimmicks.
The bump in basic education funding also incorporated some "savings and reductions" in non-basic education, including suspending Initiative 732, a voter-approved but unfunded cost of living increase for teachers. Legislators would be wise to repeal it and concentrate on comprehensive funding reform.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn joins the critics saying the Legislature didn't do enough last session. In a statement, he notes McCleary requires a $4 billion increase in education spending by 2018 and argues acceptable progress calls for a boost of $1.4 billion in the 2013-15 budget. He wants another $400 million in next year's supplemental budget.
We can quibble about the numbers (there's no magic in them), but the Legislature has accepted them. And the court bought into them, saying lawmakers must make steady progress toward the $4 billion increase to meet the McCleary standard.
Gimmicks won't do the trick. The court requires the state to find a way to fund education with "regular and dependable tax sources." That's murky, but it's clear that growth in the current revenue base will not provide enough new money to hit the 2018 target. It's unlikely the September official revenue forecast will add more than $125 million in the current biennium. Dorn won't get his $400 million.
So maybe it's time to resurrect a discarded idea.
CBPP looks only at state funding, which is a much larger share of public school spending here than elsewhere. Most states rely more on local property taxes than we do. That's where we have an opportunity.
A casualty of the 2012 gubernatorial campaign not on the ballot was an idea called the "property tax swap." The swap had bipartisan origins, with Rep. Ross Hunter (D-Medina) and then-Sen. Joe Zarelli (R-Ridgefield) concluding that raising the state property tax while resetting local levies could significantly boost state aid and satisfy the demand for "regular and dependable" revenues.
Candidate Inslee panned the idea. After the election, interest faded. The issue is politically sensitive. Property taxes in Washington are comparatively low, but still unpopular. How much new money would go to education depends on how much levy capacity is transferred to the state and where the local levy is reset.
It's complicated, which means it's difficult. But it still looks like lawmakers' best vehicle for satisfying McCleary.
Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. His email address is

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